Stagecraft does not come naturally to Katy Perry. She does very well by candy-colored fever-dream videos; shooting whipped cream from her cupcake boobs, throwing cartoonishly out-of-control neon-‘80s ragers and becoming a B-movie jungle queen all fall quite comfortably within her skill set.
Live performance, though, is a different matter. As the musical guest this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, Perry previewed her upcoming album, and “Walking On Air” put her limitations as a performer (rather than as a singer) on full display. Her dancing seemed both rudimentary and tentative, and the most dramatic bit of stage business — involving a flowing bolt of gossamer wrapping the singer —was largely something that was happening to her, not something that she herself was driving.
Much like Perry’s performance of “Roar,” where her band wore animal costumes as she bopped along in skimpy (though not quite immodest) leopard print, it was designed for maximum spectacle, all the better to be seen from the cheap seats of the arenas she performs in.
This is the name of the game now, even with pop stars who aren’t very good at it. You might be tempted to wonder why she even bothers with dancing and costumes if they don’t particularly flatter her. But whether on-stage flash reflects well on her or not, Perry has to do it anyway, because much as elaborate music videos were once all but required in order to survive in the pop marketplace of the MTV era, it’s just how it’s done.
It’s no longer enough for pop singers to simply stand and sing. Lady Gaga has her Gagaisms. Pink does literal acrobatics. One Direction’s choreography is sort of there to prove that One Direction shouldn’t really bother with choreography, but they still do it. Just about everybody brings dancers on tour and television with them.
Even pop stars whose images are built around being down-to-earth musicians aren’t immune. Taylor Swift has elaborately choreographed set pieces in her shows. Alicia Keys, who more than anyone should be able to get away with just sitting at a piano and singing the songs she’s written, featured dancers on her recent tour. For “Unthinkable (I’m Ready),” she joined one of them for an überdramatic sequence playing out a tempestuous relationship.
That didn’t used to be a problem for pop stars; unless you were on Motown, delivering a choreographed, production-designed stage show wasn’t a requirement of the job. Back in 1983, at the height of her popularity, MTV broadcast a 40-minute concert by Cyndi Lauper, who is in many ways Perry’s exact 30-years-ago equivalent. The show was essentially bookended by a winking song about masturbation and a girl-power anthem, while a goofily-dressed Lauper bounced hyperactively around and in front of the stage.
Yet her show had practically zero production value and didn’t suffer for it. There was room in the pop landscape for both a straightforwardly-delivered performance like Lauper’s and something more elaborate like Madonna’s 1984 VMAs performance of “Like A Virgin,” with a costume, a stage set and, if not full choreography, then a clearly plotted-out idea of what she’d be doing with her body and when.
But the days of that being an option, rather than an obligation, are gone. As a performer, Perry doesn’t lack for energy or engagement, except when she’s doing one of the things that she’s most expected to do.